BBC (Conservative) political editor Nick Robinson said a report written by a working group of Conservative lawyers has predicted that the so-called British Bill of Rights would force changes in the way the Strasbourg court operates. Robinson unbelievably quoted Theresa May on the radio earlier today, from this:
“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act. The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter – for whom he pays no maintenance – lives here. The robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend. The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had pet a cat.”
Of course this was a lie. At the time May made the bizarre claim, the Judicial Office intervened and stated “This was a case in which the Home Office conceded that they had mistakenly failed to apply their own policy – applying at that time to that appellant – for dealing with unmarried partners of people settled in the UK. That was the basis for the decision to uphold the original tribunal decision – the cat had nothing to do with the decision.” The recently “retired” Ken Clarke also clarified at a Telegraph fringe event that no-one had ever avoided being deported for owning a cat.
Theresa May is far from alone amongst the Conservatives with a deep disdain for our obligations to uphold international human rights laws. It’s no surprise that David Cameron has also pledged to explore ways to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) again, in the wake of the departure of his most senior legal advisor, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Ken Clarke said: “It is unthinkable for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights,” as he also became a departing Cabinet minister. The Prime Minister is believed to have wanted rid of the Attorney General Dominic Grieve because he was supportive of Britain’s continued ECHR membership.
Labour has dubbed the Cabinet reshuffle “the massacre of the moderates”, pointing to the departure of pro-Europe and “One Nation” Tories such as David Willetts, Nick Hurd and Oliver Heald.
It’s long been the case that the Tories and the right-wing press have deliberately blurred the boundaries between the European Union and the European Council of Human Rights, which are of course completely different organisations. I assumed that this was a misdirection ploy.
However it is the case that the member states of the EU agreed that no state would be admitted to membership of the EU unless it accepted the fundamental principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and agreed to declare itself bound by it. I also think that Conservatives, who regard both institutions as “interfering”, do see the Union and the Council as the same in terms of both being international frameworks requiring the British government to have a degree of democratic accountability at an international level.
In his parting interview, Mr Clarke, who has held office in every Conservative government since 1972 and is also the party’s most prominent Europhile, said the debate was “absurd”.
“I personally think it’s unthinkable we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights; it was drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War in order to protect the values for which we fought the War for.” He’s right, of course.
The years immediately after the Second World War marked a turning point in the history of human rights, as the world reeled in horror of the Nazi concentration camps, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection, human rights concepts are of little use to those facing persecution.
So in response to the atrocities committed during the War, the International Community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual. In 1948 the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the most important agreements in world history.
Shortly afterwards another newly formed international body, the Council of Europe, set about giving effect to the UDHR in a European context. The resulting European Convention on Human Rights was signed in 1950 and ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951. At the time there were only ten members of the Council of Europe. Now 47 member countries subscribe to the European Convention, and in 1998 the Human Rights Act was passed by the Labour Party in order to “give further effect” to the European Convention in British law.
Previously, along with the Liberal Democrats, Grieve was able to thwart attempts to reform the ECHR, and opposed pulling out altogether. The plan to reform it is being led by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling but Grieve has pledged to continue to fight for Britain’s membership from the backbenchers. Though Clegg had agreed to a British Bill of Rights, he was strongly opposed to withdrawing from the ECHR.
Grieve understood that ECHR is about the fundamental rights of the citizen and ought to be cherished in the same way as the Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus are. But as we know, this is not a typical view amongst Conservatives, who frequently cite the same examples of “foreign criminals” being allowed to stay in the country as evidence it is “not working”.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that the sacking of Grieve had not led to a change in Government’s policy. However he pledged action if the Conservatives are elected next year without the Liberal Democrats: “If you are asking me about party manifestos, the Prime Minister has previously said that he wants to look at all the ways that we can ensure we are able to deport those who have committed criminal offences.”
Mr Grieve said he would defend human rights legislation from the back benches to “contribute to rationality and discourse”.
“If we send out a sign that human rights don’t matter, that is likely to be picked up in other countries which are also signatory states such as Russia.”
The Conservatives are very likely to go into the next election with a proposal to repeal Labour’s Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European Convention in British law, and replace it a British Bill of Rights. We have witnessed this Conservative-led government blatantly contravene human rights with policies such as the Bedroom Tax, the Legal Aid Bill, and there is a backlog of cases awaiting Hearing.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (established under Labour’s Human Rights Act) have suffered significant cuts to funding, from 70 million when Labour were in Government to just 25 million since the Coalition took Office, up until 2012, with fears that this will be further reduced to just 18 million. This has meant severe staffing reductions, and a massive backlog of work, and at a time when many are seeking to bring forward cases regarding the impact of Government legislation.
Human rights were formulated to protect us from governments such as this one. This is a government that chooses to treat our most vulnerable citizens despicably brutally, with absolutely no regard for their legal and moral obligation to meet our most basic needs.
Such a disregard of fundamental rights is historically associated with despots and tyrants
It’s clear that this government see human rights as an inconvenience and an obstacle to their future policy plans.
A central tenet of human rights law is that all humans have equal worth. We know that Conservatives such as Cameron don’t hold that view, there is an inherent, persistent strand of Social Darwinism that is clearly evident in Tory ideology, manifested in their policies, and they prefer and shape a hierarchical society founded on inequalities.
Disregard and contempt for human rights has led to atrocities. Human rights are safeguards, they establish moral principles that set out certain standards of human behaviour, and they are universal, providing in principle social and legal protections for all.
We need to ask why would any government want to opt out of such protections for its citizens?
We know from history that a society which isn’t founded on the basic principles of equality, decency, dignity and mutual respect is untenable and unthinkable.
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone